Paediatric Respiratory Exam
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General Inspection

How old is the child?
  • You will probably have to adapt the exam accordingly! Generally, you could put the children into three categories depending on their age: 0-6months, 6-24 months and 2 years+

Is the child awake and alert? Are they running around? Do they seem generally ill or distressed? Who is with them? Are they sat on their parents knee?
Are there any medications around?

  • Oxygen – if so, check at the wall how much, and by what method is it being administed (e.g mask, nasal specs)
  • Fluids – what fluids?
  • Inhalers?
  • Cannula
  • Central line (e.g. in F to provide IV antibiotics)

Any audible cough, wheeze, breathing difficulties?

Clothes – next it is best to take the child’s clothes off. Be sensible. If they child is under 2, then ask the parents to help. If the child is a bit older, then they are probably able to take their own clothes off. Obviously, with older and adolescent children, you will be able to take a more focussed approach, and be more wary of privacy.
General appearance:
  • Fat/skinny
  • Rashes, scars?


  • Clubbing – sign of CF
  • Tremor – from B2 agonists
  • Check capillary refill
  • Feel temperature of hands / cyanosis
  • Check radial/brachial pulse
    • Radial is often difficult to feel in children
    • Check the respiratory rate at the same time


It is often a good idea to leave ears and throat until last, as these might upset the child, and then you will have trouble doing the rest of the exam!


  • Snotty / red
  • Nasal polyps (CF)


  • Always look inside! In an infected ear, it is likely to be red and tender. Check the tympanic membranes. S their a fluid level? Is it damadged? In infection Wax is less likely, as the high temperature often melts it, so if your view is obstructed by wax, it might not be a bad sign

Mouth and Throat

  • Look at the lips and under the tongue for signs of cyanosis
  • Using a torch, look at the back of the throat for signs of infection
  • Using a tongue depressor is down to personal preference. Some practitioners do not recommend it as you could injure the child, particularly the soft palate, and many children don’t like it.
  • Tonsilitis may cause white pus to exude from the tonsils
  • Infections in the larynx and below will generally not have any throat signs. Some textbooks even advise not to look in the throat in croup – as the presence of the tongue depressor can exaggerate the condition.


Lymph nodes – examine the lymph nodes of the neck in the same way as in an adult.

  • Is it central? – in OSCE just say you would check – unpleasant and will upset the child!
  • Tracheal Tug – This is where the trachea is pulled posteriorly and superiorly during inspiration, and results from recruitment of accessory muscles in laboured breathing



Any scars – surgery –e.g. Meconium Ileus in CF
Hickman line

  • Subcostal
  • Intercostal
  • Harrison’s Sulcus – two symmetrical sulci, horizontal, at the lower margin of the anterior thorax, at the attachment of the diaphragm. A sign of prolonged respiratory distress in children. Most commonly present in children with asthma who have required an increased respiratory effort over several months. Also present in Rickets where there is insufficient calcium to allow for bone mineralisation, and the soft ribs are distorted by the pull of the diaphragm.
  • Does it look like there is hyper expansion?
  • Check the respiratory rate 


  • Chest Expansion – in young children, only need to check one, usually on the front. In older children, with a larger thorax, you should check 4 times – twice on the front, and twice on the back – at the top, right under the axilla, and at the bottom of the thorax.
  • Measure chest expansion with tape measure – measure at full inspiration and full expiration. (not often performed in practice – but say you would do it)
  • Heart – feel the location of the apex beat, checking for displacement


  • Difficult and will probably not yield great results in very small children (under 2). Should be performed in older children. Same technique as adult 


  • Same technique as adult – just make sure you compare sides and listen to all lobes, including under the axilla and to the apices above the clavicle.
Auscultation of the chest of a 15 month old child
Auscultation of the chest of a 15 month old child. This file is taken from wikimedia commons and is licensed under the Creative Commons Attribution-Share Alike 3.0 Unported license.

Finishing off

Feel for the liver. If the liver is lower than expected, it may be displaced by hyper expanded lungs. Normal liver position:

  • Age 0-6 months – 1-2 fingers below rib cage
  • Age 6-24 months – 0-1 finger below rib cage
  • Age 2+ – usually not palpable (but remember, palpable liver is often still normal)

Do a peak flow test
Check O2 sats
If not already done, you might want to strip off the child to check for rashes (meningitis / septicaemia)
Remember to look in the ears and throat if you missed it out earlier!

Common Findings of Respiratory Exam in children

Chest Movement
  • Laboured breathing
  • Hyperinflation
  • Recession
Fine crackles +/- wheeze
  • Reduced on affected side
  • Rapid, shallow breathing
Increased vocal fremitus
  • Reduced, but hyperinflated
  • Use of accessory muscles
  • Harrison’s sulcus if prolonged
  • Hyperinflation

Also look for:

  • Clubbing
  • Nasal polyps


Inspiratory crepitations
Expiratory wheeze


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Dr Tom Leach

Dr Tom Leach MBChB DCH EMCert(ACEM) FRACGP currently works as a GP and an Emergency Department CMO in Australia. He is also a Clinical Associate Lecturer at the Australian National University, and is studying for a Masters of Sports Medicine at the University of Queensland. After graduating from his medical degree at the University of Manchester in 2011, Tom completed his Foundation Training at Bolton Royal Hospital, before moving to Australia in 2013. He started almostadoctor whilst a third year medical student in 2009. Read full bio

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